By Mike DeFabo
Times West Virginian
Temperatures reached record lows this week in West Virginia. But while it’s bitterly cold outside, things are just heating up in the Mountain East Conference.
Fairmont State University (8-3, 3-2 MEC) currently has the fourth-best conference record after winning three of its last four. The Falcons trail third-place Wheeling Jesuit (6-3, 4-2 MEC) by just a single game.
FSU will try to do something about that today when Cardinals come to the Joe Retton Arena. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m., following the women’s game against the same opponent at 5:30 p.m.
“Both teams are fighting for position, trying to get into the NCAA tournament,” second-year Fairmont State University basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “It’s a crucial early game in the season, and I think our guys understand that.”
Do they? Lets ask.
“It’s definitely in our minds,” said Stevie Browning, who leads the Falcons with 17.2 points per game. “I think it’s given us a little bit more juice this week to practice with and go harder with.”
The standings aren’t the only place where Fairmont State and Wheeling Jesuit are jockeying for position. Take a look down the stat sheet.
Scoring offense: Fairmont State’s 84.8 points per game ranks the team fourth, just 2.6 better than fifth-place Wheeling Jesuit.
Scoring defense: Fairmont State (72.8 points per game) again edges Wheeling Jesuit by a single place. The Falcons rank fourth; the Cardinals fifth.
Field-goal percentage: Fairmont State ranks third at 48.5 percent, just 0.1 percent higher than Wheeling Jesuit. (48.4 percent.)
It goes on like this with field-goal defense (FSU 2, Wheeling 3), steals (FSU 2, Wheeling 4) and so on.
All of this is not meant to bore you with numbers and decimals. (And you thought there would be no math.) Rather, the point is that the game may just turn out to be as closely contested as the stats suggest. A rounding error could mean the difference on paper. One turnover or ill-advised shot could mean the difference on the court.
“It gives us some encouragement to get up to that third spot,” said Thomas Wimbush, who is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game. “If we can seal this game off, then we’ll be in good position in the conference.”
To do so, the Falcons will need to focus on contesting shots. The Cardinals are a guard-heavy offense that isn’t afraid to shoot 3-pointers. As a testament to this, Wheeling Jesuit boasts three players who are averaging double figures; All three are guards.
“When they make shots, they’re very good,” Calhoun said. “When they struggle, it’s because they struggle with shooting the basketball.”
The Cardinals main weapon is 6-foot-1 sophomore Justin Fritts. The guard, who was named Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball” in high school and West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year last season, is averaging nearly 20 points per game this season.
“We really have to do a good job on Fritts,” Wimbush said. “We’ve got to keep him off the free throw line and make him shoot contested 2s.”
But Wimbush added that three Cardinals are averaging double figures. Eric Siefert, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard, and Andre Harris, a 6-foot-5 senior guard, are putting up 16.4 and 12.2 points per game respectively.
“All of them are key guys because they are smart basketball players,” he said. “We’ve just got to play smart basketball.”
There’s no let-up for the Falcons after today’s game. They will play three games in five days— Wheeling Jesuit today, Concord Saturday and UVa-Wise on Monday.
“This is a huge week for us,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got three games at home this week. If you want to play in March, you’ve got to win home games.”
INJURY NOTES: Calhoun had three messages for his team this week: “Get better. Get wins. Get healthy.”
The third part has been the most difficult for the Falcons. Brendan Cooper remains out with a broken hand. Calhoun said he will get his cast off next week and hopes to have him back shortly afterward. Caleb Davis is fighting through an infection in his chest. He is taking antibiotics and will be back on the court in two to three weeks. Ke’Chaun Lewis is nursing an elbow injury. Calhoun said he continues to improve, but there is no timetable for his return.
“It’s been unbelievable the amount of injuries that we’ve had,” Calhoun said. “It’s not sprained ankles or little things. These have been major injuries and major complications.
“It started but in the preseason (with Tommy Scales’ heart condition), but we haven’t let it affect us.”
Email Mike DeFabo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeDeFaboTWV.